History of Science and Technology in Islam





From ancient history till the sixteenth century, the Near East was leading the world in technological innovation and advance. This is not to minimize the importance of Chinese civilization and its great contributions to the world; but what we want to point out is that the overall contribution of the Near East to human progress in general until the sixteenth century, surpasses anything that was achieved anywhere else in the world. This was true during the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, as it was true during the Hellenistic and the Roman periods. What is called the Greco-Roman heritage was built on the great civilizations of the Near East. Furthermore, the major achievements in science and technology that are called Hellenistic and Roman were mainly Near Eastern achievements due to the scholars and artisans of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia.

The pre-Islamic civilizations of the Near East and of all the lands extending from Central Asia and northern India to Spain were inherited by Islam; and under the influence of Islam and of the Arabic language, the science and technology of these regions were greatly developed and advanced.

 During the rise of Islamic civilization, Europe was still at an early stage in its technological status. Charles Singer, in the second volume of A History of Technology, observes that "the Near East was superior to the West. For nearly all branches of technology, the best products available to the West were those of the Near East. Technologically, the West had little to bring to the East. The technological movement was in the other direction".[2]

Despite these facts, the influence of the medieval Arab-Islamic civilization in formulating the Western tradition and in providing the foundation for its science and technology is hardly recognized in the mainstream of modern Western literature, except for an occasional reference. There is a resistance by the mainstream of Western historians in acknowledging this influence.

This article summarizes the debt that the West owes to the Arabic-Islamic civilization in the field of technology. It comes as a response to the sudden interest in the West in the Arabic-Islamic achievements in science and technology; an interest that was awakened by the recent political and military events.

 Avenues of Transfer

Transfer of Islamic science and technology to the West was affected through various avenues. We give below an outline of these.




There was a remarkable flow of scientific and technological knowledge from the Muslim east to al-Andalus and that was central to its cultural and economic vitality.

The most fruitful transfer to the West took place in the Iberian Peninsula, where over several centuries the generally tolerant rule of the Umayyad Caliphs and their successors permitted friendly relationships between Muslims and Christians.

The Spanish historian, Castro, argued that Christian Spain has always been an importer of technologies, and after the fall of Toledo in 1085 the exporters of technology were the Muslim Mudéjars[3] who formed enclaves of technological expertise that were geographically inside the country, but ethnically outside it. Ethnic boundaries are not hermetically sealed. Diffusion of techniques was continuous. The implantation of new techniques in Spanish Christian towns was effected through the migration of artisans, utilization of the skills of ethnic enclaves, or imitation of foreign wares. Castro is of the opinion that Christian economy was colonized by its own ethnic subordinates.

The Mozarabs[4] played also an important role in transferring Arabic culture and technology to Christian Spain. The Christian kingdoms could only continue to expand by successfully colonizing the territories that they had occupied. These territories were virtually depopulated because of the conquests and it was therefore necessary to repopulate them again. One method used was to attract Mozarab immigrants from al-Andalus. Such was the policy which enabled Alfonso III to colonize the conquered territories. The Mozarabs were to build important buildings, monasteries and fortresses that constituted typical examples of Mozarabic architecture. They brought with them their knowledge of the language that enabled them to compile Arabic glosses on Latin manuscripts, and to translate Arabic works. They provided the base of the intellectual movement of the "School of Translators of Toledo". They introduced Arabic-Islamic tastes, crafts and administrative skills. In this sense, it is undeniable that they contributed powerfully to the intellectual and cultural arabisation of the Christian kingdoms.

Muslim techniques in agriculture, irrigation, hydraulic engineering, and manufacture were an integral part of everyday life in the southern half of the peninsula, and many Muslim skills in these fields and in others, passed from Christian Spain into Italy and northern Europe. These transmissions were not checked by the crusading wars which were going on against the Muslims in Spain. Indeed, they were probably accelerated, since the Christians took over the Muslim installations and maintained them in running order in the ensuing centuries.




Sicily was part of the Muslim Empire and did not lag behind in the cultivation of a high standard of civilization including the founding of big institutions for teaching sciences and arts. Due to its proximity to mainland Italy it had played an important role in the transmission of Arabic science and technology to Europe. During the Arab era (827-1091) and the Norman one (1091-1194) Sicily was, after Spain, a bridge between the Arabic-Islamic civilization and Europe.

In the Muslim period, Palermo was a major city of trade, culture and learning. It became one of the greatest cities in the world. It was a period of prosperity and tolerance as Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and peace.

The Arab tradition of tolerance toward other religions was perpetuated under the Norman kings. Under the rule of Roger II, Sicily became a clearing house where eastern and western scholars met and exchanged ideas that were to awaken Europe and herald the coming of the Renaissance. Arabic science was passed from Sicily to Italy and then to all of Europe.

The Arab presence in Sicily was the stimulus for artistic activity which characterized Norman Sicily. Virtually all monuments, cathedrals, palaces and castles built under the Normans were Arab in the sense that the craftsmen were Arab, as were the architects. As a result, Arabic influence on architecture can be seen in several Italian cities.

The Arabs introduced many new crops: including cotton, hemp, date palms, sugar cane, mulberries and citrus fruits. The cultivation of these crops was made possible by new irrigation techniques brought into Sicily.

The revolution in agriculture generated a number of related industries, such as textiles, sugar, rope-making, matting, silk, and paper. Other industries included glass, ceramics, mosaics, arms and engines of war, ship building, and the extraction of minerals such as sulphur, ammonia, lead and iron.

The proximity of Sicily to mainland Italy made it, together with Muslim Spain, a source for the transfer of several industrial technologies to Italian cities such as the manufacture of paper and silk. 

By the late 11th or early 12th century sericulture had been established in Muslim Sicily; and by the 13th century silk textiles were being woven on the Italian mainland itself, principally at Lucca and Bologna. These two Italian cities were also the site of the first silk-throwing machine in Europe, a technology that was transferred from the Arabs of Sicily.




The proximity of Byzantium to the Islamic lands and the common borders between them resulted in active commercial and cultural contacts. Some Arabic scientific works were translated into Greek. The discovery of the Tusi Couple in a Greek manuscript that could have been accessible to Copernicus accounts fairly well for the possible transmission of that theorem through the Byzantine route. Technology was transferred from Islamic lands to Byzantium and from thence to Europe.




The Crusades in the Near East


In the high Middle Ages "Orient" for Europe meant Arabic civilization, and although the influence of the Crusades on the transmission of science to Europe was small, yet the Crusaders, while in the Near East, experienced the attractive sides of Islamic life,  and attempted to  imitate  these on  their return home. These aspects of material civilization mean that the Crusaders transferred to Europe several technological ideas from the Near East[5]. The outcome was the adoption by the Christian West of some of the great achievements of Arabic civilization. This Arabic influence was to have an enormous impact on the further development of Europe.


The Crusades in Spain


The Crusades against the Muslims in Spain resulted in various kinds of technology transfer to the Christians of Spain. One of these technologies was the use of gunpowder and cannon. It is reported that this technology was transferred also to England in 1340-42 at the siege of al-Jazira in al-Andalus. The English earls of Derby and Salisbury participated in the siege and it is reported that they carried back with them to England the knowledge of making gunpowder and cannon. After few years the English used cannon for the first time in Western Europe against the French in the battle of Crecy in 1346.


Commercial Relations


Relations between Christian Europe and the Islamic World were not always hostile, and there were active commercial relations most of the time. This led to the establishment of communities of European merchants in Muslim cities, while groups of Muslim merchants settled in Byzantium, where they made contact with Swedish traders traveling down the Dnieper. There were particularly close commercial ties between Fatimid Egypt and the Italian town of Amalfi in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The ogival arch, an essential element of Gothic architecture, entered Europe through Amalfi - the first church to incorporate such arches being built at Monte Cassino in 1071.


In the Middle Ages, oriental luxury goods were indispensable to the lifestyle of the European upper classes. Significant as these luxury goods were to European culture of the Middle Ages, they were no less important to the medieval economy. Foreign trade that provided these luxury items was an economic enterprise on a grand scale.

Islamic luxury goods and pepper were transported from Syria and Egypt. Venice became the chief transfer point in Europe. With the profits from this trade, the Venetian wholesale merchants built their marble palaces. The splendid architecture of Venice, lavishly displaying its oriental influence, became a sort of monument to its trade with Islamic lands.


The Translation of Arabic Works


The translation movement which started in the twelfth century had its impact on the transfer of technology. Alchemical treatises are full of industrial chemical technologies such as the distillation industries and the chemical industries in general. Arabic treatises on medicine and pharmacology are rich also in technological information on materials' processing. Works on astronomy contain many technological ideas when they deal with instrument-making.

In the court of Alfonso X there was an active translation movement from Arabic where the work entitled Libros del Saber de Astronomia was compiled. It includes a section on timekeeping, which contains a weight-driven clock with a mercury escapement. We know that such clocks were constructed by Muslims in Spain in the eleventh century about 250 years before the weight-driven clock appeared in northern Europe.

The West was acquainted with the Muslim science of surveying through the Latin translations of Arabic mathematical treatises.

Translations of technical materials from Arabic are evident in Adelard of Baths's new edition of Mappae Calvicula. Several recipes from Arabic were confirmed by historians of science. It is known that Adelard resided in Arabic lands and was a noted translator from Arabic. Another important text of Arabic origin is the Liber Ignium of Marcus Graecus. It is now acknowledged that gunpowder was first known to the West through this treatise.


Arabic Manuscripts in European Libraries


In his research into the avenues through which Copernicus became acquainted with the Arabic theorems on astronomy George Saliba[6] indicated that these theorems were circulating in Italy around the year 1500 and thus Copernicus could have learned about them from his contacts in Italy. Saliba demonstrated that the various collections of Arabic manuscripts preserved in European libraries contain enough evidence to cast doubt on the prevailing notions about the nature of Renaissance science, and to bring to light new evidence about the mobility of scientific ideas between the Islamic world and Renaissance Europe.

There was no need for Arabic texts to be fully translated into Latin in order for Copernicus and his contemporaries to make use of their contents. There were competent scientists in that period when Copernicus flourished who could read the original Arabic sources and make their contents known to their students and colleagues.

This information about the availability of Arabic manuscripts in European libraries and the familiarity of many Europeans with Arabic brings to light the possible transfer of Islamic technology into Europe in the sixteenth century through the possible understanding of un-translated Arabic works. We mentioned below that the Banu Musa, al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din described in their works innovations in mechanical technology much earlier than the appearance of similar devices in the West.

We may recollect in passing that Arabic was taught in academies and schools in Spain, Italy and France that were established mainly for missionary purposes, but they served other fields of knowledge as well. They were also taught in some universities.


Flow of Arabic Recipes from Spain into Europe


Beside the known Arabic works that were translated into Latin, and the Arabic manuscripts in Western libraries, there is ample evidence that there was an active traffic of recipes flowing from Spain into Western Europe.

Starting with Jabir ibn Hayyan in his book Kitab al-Khawass al-Kabir which contains a collection of curious operations some of which are based on scientific principles, physical and chemical, an Arabic literature on secrets arose. Some of these secrets are called niranjat. Military treatises also, such as al-Rammah's book, contain recipes of secrets in addition to the formulations of military fires and gun-powder. 

The Arabic military and the secrets recipes found their way into Latin literature. All recipes in the Liber Ignium had their corresponding ones in the known Arabic literature. Numerous other Latin works such as those of Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, and Kyeser and Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth, contain recipes of Arabic origin

An explanation on how these Arabic recipes, military and secret, found their way into Latin literature has been suggested. There were in Spain persons with knowledge of Arabic science and technology, and of both Arabic and Latin, who embarked on compiling various collections of recipes from Arabic sources to meet the increasing demand in Europe. Jews were most active in this pursuit. These collections were purchased at high prices by European nobility, engineers and other interested parties. Some recipes were un-intelligible but they were purchased on the hope that they will be interpreted at some future time.


Migration of Artisans


An effective method of technology transfer was the migration of craftsmen and artisans. They migrated either through treaties and commercial relations, were driven westwards as a result of persecution and wars or to seek better opportunities.

As mentioned below, in the fifth/eleventh century, Egyptian craftsmen founded two glass factories at Corinth in Greece, then they emigrated westwards after the destruction of Corinth by the Normans. 

The Mongol conquest of the thirteenth century AD drove large numbers of Syrian glassworkers to glass-making centres in the West. 

In 1277, Syrian craftsmen were sent from Syria to Venice as a result of a treaty between Antioch, and Venice, as we shall see below. 

In Spain the migration of Muslim craftsmen to Christian Spain was taking place throughout the Crusade upon the fall of Muslim cities. Al-Andalus was an emporium from which Christians were importing those products which they did not produce themselves. The techniques, however, were transferred upon the conquest of Muslim towns. The technologies were practiced by resident Muslim craftsmen who, subsequent to the conquest, became very mobile and diffused manufacturing technologies throughout the Christian kingdoms. 

As mentioned above, Mozarabs immigrated northwards to Christian territories either due to enticement or because of persecution and were influential in transferring Islamic technology. 

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the economy of Provence in the south of France was affected by contact with the Muslim west and the Muslim east. The imported crockery from al-Andalus became popular in Provence. Archaeology attests to the importation of techniques from the Muslim west for the manufacture of ceramics in imitation to the Muslim ones. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a great proportion of artisans and workers in Marseilles and Provence were foreigners including moors and Jews from al-Andalus.  

The fall of Muslim Sicily to the Normans resulted in the emigration of great numbers of Sicilian Muslims to North Africa but others remained. Around 1223 Frederick II deported the remaining Muslims to Lucera in Apulia, Italy, and some had settled in other parts of southern Italy. The Muslims of Lucera practiced several occupations including the manufacture of arms, especially crossbows with which they supplied Christian armies. They produced also ceramics and other industrial products. When the colony was destroyed in 1230 and its inhabitants were sold into slavery, the manufacturers of arms were spared this fate and were allowed to stay in Naples to practice their craft.[7]

Livorno in Tuscany expanded and became a major port during the rule of the Medici family in the 16th century. Cosimo I (1537-1574) wanted to increase the importance of Livorno, so he invited foreigners to come to the new port.

Ferdinand I, grand duke of Tuscany from 1587 to 1609, gave asylum to many refugees - including Moors and Jews from Spain and Portugal. These immigrants were given many rights and privileges and they established in Livorno the soap, paper, sugar-refining and wine distillation industries.


Movement of Scholars, Converts, Diplomats,

Commercial Agents, Clergy and Spies


In addition to the translators who flocked to Spain during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was a continuous movement of persons from the West to the Near East, and to al-Andalus and al-Maghrib countries, and a movement in the opposite direction also. This movement of persons contributed to the transmission of science and technology from Islamic lands to the West. 

Gerbert who became Pope Sylvester II was a French educator and mathematician who spent three years (967-970) in the monastery of Ripolli in northern Spain during which he studied Arabic science. He is considered "the first ambassador who carried the new Arabic science across the Pyrenees". 

Constantinus Africanus was the first to introduce Arabic medicine into Europe. He was born in Tunis (about 1010-1015 AD) and died at Monte Cassino in 1087. He traveled as a merchant to Italy and having noticed the poverty of medical literature there he decided to study medicine, so he spent three years doing this in Tunis. After collecting several Arabic medical works he departed to Italy when he was about 40 years old, and he settled first in Salerno and then in Monte Cassino where he became a Christian convert. 

Constantinus translated into Latin the most important Arabic medical works that were known up to his time, and attributed them to him. But these works were later traced back to their real Arabic origin. Nevertheless he was responsible for introducing Arabic medicine into Europe and in heralding the start of proper medical education. 

One of the earliest Western scholars to travel to Arab lands was Adelard of Bath who was active between 1116 and 1142. He traveled to Sicily and Syria where he spent seven years during which he learnt Arabic and became acquainted with Arabic learning. Beside his important scientific translations Adelard was instrumental in the transfer of Islamic technology. He issued a revised edition of Mappae Clavicula which is a collection of recipes on the production of colours and other chemical products. This treatise is a very important one in Western medieval technology. Steinschneider listed it among works that are mostly of Arabic origin whose authors and translators are unknown. 

Another important figure from the same era was Leonardo Fibonacci who was born around 1180. He was a great mathematician and at 12 was living with his family in Bougie in Algeria. He received his education in mathematics and Arabic under an Arab teacher. This was followed by an apprenticeship period in commercial travels to the ports of the Mediterranean during which he visited Syria and Egypt and was able to have access to Arabic manuscripts in mathematics and to gain experience in Arabic commercial mathematics. He compiled his important book Liber abaci in 1228. He wrote also other works of lesser importance, one of which was Practica geometriae. In this book he explained the utilization of geometry in surveying (`Ilm al misaha), as it was practiced by Muslim engineers. 

Another Arab convert to Christianity was Leo Africanus who was born in Granada between 1489 and 1495 and was raised in Fas. His name is al-Hasan b. Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zayyati (or al-Fasi). He was traveling in diplomatic missions, and while he was returning from Cairo by sea he was captured by Sicilian corsairs who presented him to Pope Leo X. The Pope was able to convert him to Christianity in 1520. During his stay of about thirty years in Italy, he learnt Italian, taught Arabic at Bologna, and wrote his famous book Description of Africa which was completed in 1526. He collaborated with Jacob ben Simon in compiling Arabic-Hebrew-Latin vocabulary. Before 1550, he returned to Tunis to spend his last years embracing back his ancestral faith. 

From the Renaissance period was Guillaume Postel, a French scholar who was born around 1510 and died 1581; He was well versed in Arabic and other languages, and had procured in two trips to Istanbul and the Near East a large number of Arabic manuscripts. The first trip which took place in 1536 was undertaken to collect manuscripts on behalf of the king of France. In the second trip Postel is believed to have spent the years 1548 to 1551 traveling to Palestine and Syria to collect manuscripts. After this trip, he earned the appointment as Professor of Mathematics and Oriental Languages at the College Royal. Two Arabic astronomical manuscripts from his collection are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris and in the Vatican, and they contain al-Tusi theorems and carry heavy annotations and notes by Postel himself. It is possible that among the manuscripts that he collected were some written by Taqi al-Din who was the foremost scientist in Istanbul at that time and who wrote treatises on astronomy, machines and mathematical subjects. Postel's precious collection of manuscripts went to the University of Heidelberg. 

Another important scholar from this period is Jacob Golius (1590-1667). Who was appointed Professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Leiden. Golius after his appointment spent the period 1625 until 1629 in the Near East, bringing back a harvest of 300 Arabic, Turkish and Persian manuscripts. He was an Arabist as well as a scientist, and it is reported that he translated some works of Jabir into Latin and had published them. 

Some Western diplomats played a role in the transfer of science and technology. Levinus Warner (1619-65) was a student of Golius in Leiden. In 1644 he settled in Istanbul. In 1655 he was appointed the Dutch representative at the Porte. During his stay he amassed a great library of manuscripts of about 1000 which he bequeathed to the University Library of Leiden. 

Another important figure from the Renaissance period was Patriarch Ni'meh who immigrated from Diyar Bakr in northern Mesopotamia to Italy in 1577 AD. He carried with him his own library of Arabic manuscripts. Ni'meh was well received by the Pope Gregory XIII and by the Medici Family in Florence and was appointed to the editorial board of the Medici Oriental Press. His own library is still preserved at the Laurenziana Library in Florence, and apparently formed the nucleus for the library of the Medici Oriental Press itself. During his service with the press several Arabic scientific works were published. 

In addition to scholars and diplomats many travelers and pilgrims frequented Muslim lands throughout the centuries, and they contributed to the transfer of Islamic science and technology. We shall mention only one unique person who was a traveler as well as a spy. This was the French traveler Bertrandon de la Brocquière, who visited the Holy Land and the Muslim states of Anatolia in 1432 and wrote his book Le Voyage d'Outre-mer. His mission as a spy was to assess the possibilities of launching a new crusade to be led by the Duke of Burgundy. 

He was a highly competent spy and a very observant tourist and was keen to understand everything that came in his way. When he arrived in Beirut in 1432 the inhabitants were celebrating the ‘id. He was surprised to see the fireworks for the first time. He realized fully their great potential in war and he was able, against a bribe, to learn their secret and he took the information with him back to France. 

We can refer briefly to the role played by the commercial missions of Italian cities in Egypt, Syria and other Muslim cities. This influence has been the subject of recent research. One such study established the Muslim influence on the architecture of present day Venice due to its commercial missions in Muslim lands. 

We may refer also to the importance of the Arab Maronites who resided in Rome and other cities in Europe during the Renaissance for educational purposes and for rendering services related to their knowledge of the Arabic language and Arabic culture. Among them were great scholars who became professors of Arabic in Rome and Paris. 


[1]  This is a revised version of the article published in Cultural Contacta in Building a Universal Civilization: Islamic Contributions, E. Ihsanoglu (editor), IRCICA< Istanbul, 2005, pp 183-223.

[2]     C. Singer, Epilogue, in C. Singer.  et al. (eds), A History of Technology, Vol. II, (Oxford: Oxfod University Press, 1979), p. 756.

[3]      Spanish “mudréjar (from Arabic mudajjan), any of the Muslims who remained in Spain after the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (11th-15th century).

[4]      From Arabic “musta'rib ”, "arabicized", any of the Spanish Christians living under Muslim rule, who, while unconverted to Islam, adopted Arabic language and culture.

[5]      E. Barker, “The Crusades” in Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume, eds., The Legacy of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), 40-77; Singer et al., 764-5. Two sources are particularly useful: A.S. Atiya, The Crusades, Commerce and Culture (Mass.: Gloucester, 1969); and P. Hitti, Tarikh al-'Arab, Vol. II (Beirut, 1965), 780-92, and his original English History of the Arabs, 10th ed. (Macmillan, 1970), 659-70.

[6]      Saliba, George, “Mediterranean Crossings: Islamic Science in Renaissance Europe”, an article on the Internet: http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/ services/ dropoff/ saliba/document/

[7]      Julie Taylor, Muslims in Medieval Italy, The Colony at Lucera (Lexington Books, 2003), 114, 203, 204.




In addition to the footnotes, references to the information outlined in this article (Parts I, II and III) are given in the following sources:  


Ahmad, Aziz. A History of Islamic Sicily. Islamic Surveys 10. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1975.

Al-Hassan, A. Y. et al. (editors),The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture. Vol. IV: Science and Technology in Islam, Parts 1 and 2. UNESCO, 2002.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. and Donald Hill. Islamic Technology, an Illustrated History. UNESCO and CUP, 1986.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Potassium Nitrate in Arabic and Latin Sources”, Proceedings of the XXI International Congress of History of Science. Mexico City, 2001. Also at www.history-science-technology.com .

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Sources in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries”, ICON, Vol. 9 (2004),

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. and Donald Hill. “Ingeneria”. Storia Della Scienza, Vol. Ill, Capitolo LI. Enciclopedia Italiana, 2002, 647-666.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Technologia Delia Chimica”. Storia Della Scienza, Vol. Ill, Capitolo LII, Enciclopedia Italiana, 2002, 667-686.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine”, forthcoming article in the Festschrift in honour of Professor Andrew Watson. See also this article on the internet at www.history-science-technology.com

Glick, T. F. Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

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Partington, J. R. A History of Greek Fire & Gunpowder. John Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science. 3 vols. in five. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins, 1927-1948.

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Wiedemann, E. Aufsadtze zur arabischen Wissenschaftsgeschichte. 2 vols., New York: Hildesheim, 1970., coll. "Collectanea, VI", Olms.


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